These Houses Chapter Ten

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER TEN

The past two weekends had been a blur.  Those first two weekends in Marlborough, she was so exhausted and behind that she alternated between sleeping, eating, and homework.  The harder she worked, she realized, the more she forgot that Henry and Edie hadn’t called or texted or emailed.  The harder she worked, the less time she had for remembering.

But this Friday, her grandmother was apparently taking full advantage of having her granddaughter isolated away from books and computers.  As they pulled out of the parking lot, her grandmother turned to her.  “Do you want to go shopping?”

Margaret looked at her in mock disbelief.  “I’m a teenage girl,” she said.  “I always want to go shopping.  It’s programmed into my DNA.”

Her grandmother’s smile was quick and so much like her son’s, like her grandson’s, that Mags wondered whose smile she had gotten.  It wasn’t theirs.  She didn’t have the gift of quick smiles, of sudden brightness.  And it wasn’t her mother’s, whose smiles were sweet and slow.  “Come on, then,” her grandmother said.  “We’ll get you some more pieces for school and a real winter coat for you.  That light thing you brought from New Orleans won’t get you past November.”

Mags blushed and slumped a little in her seat.  “Oh, no, Grandma.  I thought you meant for you.  I can’t go shopping.  I…” she turned to look out the window so her grandmother wouldn’t see the red flush across her face.  “I don’t have any money.”

“Mags.”

It was the first time Grandmother Hale had called her Mags.  With that one word, Mags turned to her.  “Ma’am?”

Again, that sharp discerning eye.  “Consider it a housewarming present.”

“No, Grandma, I can’t accept that.  I—”

“Stop.”  Her voice was sharp but her eyes kind as they glanced over at her granddaughter again.  “You are my granddaughter and I will buy you clothes if I feel like it.  Besides, you will freeze to death come winter if I don’t do something about it.  Lord knows your mother won’t.”

“She’s very ill,” Mags said, the excuse automatic, the protestation rising instantly to her lips as it had for near two years now.

Her grandmother had seemed to start.  After a moment, she nodded.  “Of course,” she said.  “Have you even been to the mall yet?”

It was close to six by the time they finished shopping.  She had gotten a few more essentials—a couple of sweaters, a few “layering pieces,” as her grandmother called them—as well as some more casual clothes for school.  But her two favorite things were the peacock bangle bracelet she found on clearance for three bucks and bought herself—she sent a silent thanks to Adam the asshole for contributing to her accoutrements fund—and the military wool coat with the bright blue lining her grandmother got for her.

“We’ll need to get you a down coat when real winter starts,” she said as she examined Mags in the dressing room.  “But that’s just so flattering on you, and it will serve you well through January, at least.  If it’s a milder winter, it should be good until spring.”

Mags buttoned the coat up to her chin.  It was slightly A-lined, and flared out from the hips to hang to her knees.  The antiqued silver buttons marched down the front, and the pockets were unobtrusive yet roomy.  “I love it,” she said.  And it was on sale to boot, so she didn’t feel so guilty when her grandmother insisted, yet again, on spending money on her.

“You’ve got an adorable figure, Margaret.”  Her grandmother stood and, with a discerning eye honed from years of working the higher end of retail, tugged the coat and belted it around Mags’s waist.  “But you have to stop wearing clothes that are too big for you.”

“I don’t do it on purpose,” Mags said.  “It’s just hard finding clothes that accommodate this,” she gestured at her head to indicate her height, “and these.”  Here, she gestured to her chest and hips.

“Well, your mother used to take in your clothes, I remember.  Maybe we can get her to tailor a few things for you.”  Her grandmother gave her that sudden smile again and nodded.  “Come on, then.  We are not finished winterizing you yet.”

They weren’t.  Not by a long shot.  They had to buy water-resistant gloves (“for the snow,” her grandmother had said), a long scarf that would wrap around her face (“this one,” her grandmother had said, holding up a blue scarf the exact match for the lining of her coat), ear muffs, a cute ski cap, and black Wellies with bright pink skull-and-crossbones on them.

As they were just walking out of the last store, a local boutique owned by the daughter of one of her grandmother’s friends, they passed a display of junior dresses, all poofy skirts and net petticoats underneath.

“Isn’t Homecoming in a few weeks?” her grandmother asked.  “Are you going?”

Mags nodded.  “I’m going for the paper and for yearbook now, apparently.  I’ve become the official school photographer.”  Not that she minded.  She had been infinitely pleased when Mrs. Scotch, the yearbook advisor, had come to her to ask if she could step in and help out.  Mags said yes before Mrs. Scotch could even finish asking, much to the teacher’s amusement.

“But you’re not going with a date.”

Mags gave her a wry smile.  “No, not with a date.”

“But you still need to wear a dress, right?”  Her grandmother was peering at a green dress on the rack.  Her expression was not at all kind toward the dress.

“Sure,” Mags said.  It dawned on her what her grandmother was asking.  “Oh, no, Grandma.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s really so not a big deal.  No one will look at me at all.  Besides, I’ll just wear one of my dresses from last year.  My junior prom, or…” she paused for a moment.  “Henry’s.”  She and Henry had gone to all of their dances together, and again, she wondered how she had been so stupid as to not see that Henry liked her, loved her, even. 

“Hmm,” her grandmother said.  “We’ll see about that.”

#

            “My God, these are gorgeous.”  Mags stared at the clothes her grandmother had laid out on the bed.  A peacock tunic dress, a few adorable, full-skirted, cotton A-line numbers from the early sixties, mod color-blocked dresses from the late sixties that would look adorable with patterned tights.  A tent cape with slits for the arms.  “Seriously?  I can have all of them?”

            “When am I ever going to wear them again?”  Her grandmother sat down at the edge of the bed and took one of the dresses onto her lap.  “I’m too old and the body is not at all what it used to be.  But you?”  She held the dress against Mags’s shoulders and smiled.  “They’ll look gorgeous on you.”

            Mags stood and held the dress at her shoulders.  “I never realized we were about the same size,” she said in a soft voice.

            “Yes, well, you and Freddie get your height from my side of the family.”

            It was true.  Mags’s mother was petite, barely skimming 5’2, and Edie and the rest of the cousins weren’t that much larger.  But her dad was about 6’0, and Freddie had been a little over it.  She was 5’9, and towered over most of the maternal side of her family.  But not her paternal grandmother, she realized.  Not Grandmother Hale.

            She slipped into her grandmother’s bathroom and wiggled into the bright blue A-line dress.  The top had not-quite cap sleeves with a boat neck, while the skirt was full, accented with a cute rhinestone belt.  “Grandma, I need help with the zipper,” she said as she walked out of the bathroom and froze when she saw who was in there.

            “Here, I can do it.”  Her mother gestured her over to where she sat on the bed.

            Mags unfroze herself and wandered to her mom.  “Are you okay?  Is something wrong?”

            “No, of course not.”  Her mother smiled.  “I just heard voices and when Greta told me what you were doing, I wanted to come see.”  She turned Mags around and zipped her up.  “You’re right,” she said to Grandmother Hale.  “It’s almost perfect.”

            “A little loose in the waist,” her grandmother said.  “But she’s more hourglass than I was.”

            Mags stared at herself in the mirror.  The dress was gorgeous, cute and fun, sexy without being over the top.  “Is it right for Homecoming?” she asked, her eyes catching her grandmother’s in the mirror.  “Not too Gown?”

            “No, not at all.  In fact, it’s perfect.”  She smiled at Mags.  “I made brownies earlier.  Anyone interested in pizza?  We could be wicked and bring it to the living room.  One of the local channels airs the away games for Milton.”

            Mags turned to her mother.  “Mom?  Do you want to watch football with us?”

            “I would love to,” her mother said.  “Greta, if you order the pizza, I can get this pinned and take it in for Mags.”

#

Mags and her grandmother watched the entire game, from the introduction of the players to Colin Higgins leading Milton to victory.  Her mother had lasted through third quarter before she pleaded exhaustion, but she had smiled, and that was good enough for Mags.

Bess had texted her during the entire game, giving her highlights in the way only Bess could.  Mags read the choice bits out to her grandmother, who laughed out loud at Bess’s outrageous comments.  When she read, “I flipped off their 1/4back & he got mad & I said but I’m a cripple & he freaked out,” she snorted but did not share with her grandmother.

After the game, her grandmother excused herself to sleep.  Mags considered waiting up for her dad but knew he wouldn’t be home for hours yet.  Jasper was at least two hours away, and they had to round up all the equipment first.  Had she been in New Orleans, she would have gone over to Edie’s, or met Henry for a late-night coffee.  But she wasn’t in New Orleans, and her one friend here—Nupur, while nice, was clearly only friends with Mags because of Bess—was also hours away.

Mags headed to her room and realized it was the first time she had been calm enough to even think about anything outside of her new life in Marlborough.  She was so busy during the day, what with the paper and all of her AP classes and just general school navigation that she had been too burnt out to think about much of anything else at all.  No time to wonder what was happening on her deleted social networking sites.  No time to fret over her mom, or Freddie. 

But now, once she showered and calmed down enough to lie in bed, she tossed and turned for hours, remembering that Edie hadn’t texted in two weeks.  That Henry hadn’t called or emailed or texted not once since that Saturday night.  Any good will built up from her earlier good day fled from her and she started crying, full-body sobs, her fist against her mouth to muffle her sounds. 

She cried for at least an hour, and then lay there, spent, so emotionally and physically tired that she couldn’t actually fall asleep.

Mags stayed awake long enough to hear her father come home, quiet and stealthy.  She glanced at the clock.  3:00 a.m.  She swung out of bed and padded to the kitchen.

He was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, the box and the carton of milk both in front of him.  His usual post-game ritual.  But there were two spoons, and two bowls, because it used to be their post-game ritual.  First, the three of them, Mags, her dad, and Freddie, but when Freddie went off to college, it had just been the two of them.

“Hey, Magpie,” he said.

She almost started crying then and there.  He hadn’t called her Magpie in two years.  Not since the Incident.  Not in forever.  “Hi, Dad,” she said.  She sat in the seat next to him and took the cereal he handed her.  “Grandma and I watched the game on cable.”

“Oh yeah?”  He smiled at her, a real smile, and again, she felt on the verge of tears.  She was sure her eyes were swollen but she didn’t care.  She let her daddy pour milk into her bowl and lifted the spoon to her mouth.

“I really like your ‘Road to State’ spread, Magpie.  I just now got the chance to read it, on the bus back.”  He crunched another bite before he spoke again.  “It’s really good.  The cheerleaders are actually thrilled you included them.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” she said.  “You always told me they were just as important as the team.”

“They are,” her dad said.  “I’m glad you remember that.”

“I remember everything you tell me.”

He gave her his familiar smile.  “Course you do,” he said.  “You’re my good girl.”  He was quiet for another two bites, then, “You know, despite everything that’s happened, I think I like being back home.  There’s something about small-town football, you know?”  He glanced over at her.  “What do you say?  How do you feel about moving to Marlborough, three weeks in?”

She thought about it for a minute.  “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” she said.  “I mean, it’s… it’s lonely sometimes.”

“Without Edie?” her dad asked.  “Without Henry?”

She nodded.  “And without Maw-Maw.”

“You and your grandmother Hale seem to be getting along well.”

“I know,” she said, and smiled.  “I really like her.”

“Me, too.”  His eyes grew wide with mock innocence and she started to giggle.  “I wish she had been able to visit more when you were younger, but once Katrina happened…” he let his voice trail off.  He didn’t have to finish the sentiment.  “Once Katrina happened” was a common phrase to explain almost everything in New Orleans.

“It’s okay,” Mags said.  “We’re making up for lost time.”  They were silent for a bit, both crunching their cereals.  “Hey, Dad?”

“Hmm?” he said around his spoon.

“Did you get offered the job at Helstone?”

Her dad was quiet for so long she wondered if he had heard her question.  But when she opened her mouth to ask him again, he sighed.  “I did, yes.  Where did you hear that?”

She didn’t mention her grandmother’s conversation some weeks back.  “I met some kid from Helstone today.  He said he was on my review committee.”

Her dad gave her a tired nod.  “They really wanted you, Magpie.  Don’t think this had anything to do with you.”

But it did, she wanted to say.  All of this had to do with her. 

“When your grandmother agreed to help with your mom, and when Colin and Sean came to me on behalf of the football team—”

“Colin and Sean did what?”

Her father glanced over at her.  “Came to see me during my interview at Milton.  They’re team captains, Magpie.  They get the right to talk to any potential coach.”

“What did they say?”

Her father reached for the box and poured himself another bowl of Cocoa Puffs.  “That they needed me.  That they had a great shot at State, but Helstone had hired away their last assistant coach.”  He shrugged.  “And after I talked with Principal Higgins and she assured me the course load would be up to your standards, I thought we’d take the plunge.”

She had never, not once, considered what her dad had gone through to get the job here.  She had just assumed they moved and a job had happened to land in his lap.  But interviews and meetings with team captains?  An entire student committee at Helstone reviewing her file?  And what had she done this summer?  Nothing of any consequence.  Hang out with Henry and Edie and Noah, unaware that at any moment, her friendships would, once again, fall apart.  “Oh,” she said, for lack of anything better to say.

Mags stood up to dump her soggy cereal in the garbage disposal.  When she brought her bowl back to the table, she gestured at the box.  “You going to pass me that or what?”

They finished another bowl of cereal in comfortable silence.  When he got up to go to bed, he gave her an absent kiss on her head.  “Love you, Magpie.”

She stood up and wrapped her arms around him, holding this moment close to her, her finger pressing against his back, just once.  Click.  “I love you, too, Daddy.”

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